If It Was Good Enough for Socrates, It’s Good Enough for Sophomores

This is the season for final exams, but maybe we should drop the pencils, paper and keyboards and start talking instead.

The thought is scary at first. If Chidera Onyeoziri had known that her introductory sociology course required oral exams, “I’m not sure I would have taken the class,” she told me. She was a sophomore at Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y.; she had never taken an oral exam before.

“I remember putting in a lot of work, spending a lot more time on the course than I otherwise would have,” she said. During the first exam of the semester, she coped with her nerves by getting out of her chair and pacing. Her professor, normally so friendly, stared impassively and interrupted her with questions.

Looking back on the class after a few years, “I can definitely say that’s the course that I remember the most of, and that may be a function of the oral exams,” said Ms. Onyeoziri, today a student a Harvard Law School. Now that she’s planning to be a lawyer, she added, “public speaking is something I really can’t do without, so the oral exams were probably, in the long run, more helpful to me than written exams.”

As finals loom for most college students across America, it’s worth revisiting oral exams. The phrase brings to mind stone-faced interrogation intended to expose a trembling student’s “skull full of mush,” in the words of Professor Kingsfield in “The Paper Chase.” But if done right, oral exams can be more humane than written assessments. They are a useful tool in grappling with many problems in higher education: the difficulties of teaching critical thinking; students’ struggles with anxiety; everyone’s Covid-era rustiness at screen-free interaction — even the problem of student self-censorship in class discussion.

So why are they so rare? I found no firm statistics on how many American university instructors use oral exams with undergraduates, but the numbers seem to be low. Many schools face pressure to expand enrollments, give frequent low-stakes mini-assignments and use technology to quiz students en masse or “gamify skills” and call it “student engagement.” Professors are already stretched thin, and universities face a student mental health crisis made even more acute by the pandemic — so it can seem like an inopportune time to revive old-fashioned, low-tech, potentially nerve-racking oral assessments. And that’s exactly why we should.

Oral exams have been around at least since Socrates grilled Meno on the nature of virtue. Students at medieval universities in Europe debated each other and their teachers in oral disputations and endured public interrogation by committee viva voce — “with the living voice.” In the 1600s, all exams at Oxford and Cambridge were oral, and in Latin.

By 1700 or so, some Cambridge courses began to drop orals in favor of written exams, and phased them out of most disciplines by the mid-19th century. Orals persisted longer at Oxford, a university traditionally strong in classics and theology. Thomas Arnold, head of Rugby School and later a professor of history at Oxford, wrote in 1838 that students examined orally “have been thus tried more completely than could be done by printed papers; for a man’s answers suggest continually further questions; you can at once probe his weak points; and, where you find him strong, you can give him an opportunity of doing himself justice, by bringing him out especially on those very points.”

Sure, vivas, as they are commonly called in Britain, made students anxious, and that was a good thing: “Presence of mind is a quality which deserves to be encouraged — nervousness is a defect which men feel painfully in many instances through life,” he wrote. (At least they had little reason to be anxious about their appearance, since all students wore academic gowns, another old-fashioned practice that has its advantages over our age of street clothes as class markers and campus status symbols.)

But written exams carried an aura of rigor, objectivity and modernity. They provided a permanent record of performance, and made it easier to rank students and subject a mass of them to standardized questions. The undergraduate oral exam seemed more and more like a premodern artifact — especially as access to college education in Britain and North America expanded and instructors needed to churn out huge numbers of assessments.

In our own time, oral exams remain a crucial part of many Ph.D. programs, especially in the humanities. Perhaps this reinforces the image of orals as an eccentric hazing ritual appropriate only in those corners of the ivory tower that, supposedly, the modern world has left behind. What stingy state legislator would approve of a public university promoting inefficient oral exams for thousands of undergrads when multiple-choice graphite bubbles fed into a marking machine will surely do?

Yet oral exams remain a rite of passage for some large student populations in other countries. France’s baccalaureate exam, for example, culminates in the Grand Oral, a 20-minute session in which a panel of teachers examines a student on a topic that he or she has researched. In Norway, all students take three to four oral exams by the end of secondary school.

If it’s possible for other countries to administer oral exams for millions of high school students each year, we can safely say that the reason this form of assessment has fallen out of favor in America has little to do with economics or keeping pace with something called progress. The reasons are cultural.

Professors who were themselves assessed as undergraduates through written tests may think that oral exams are appropriate only for Ph.D. students, if at all. At the institutional level, universities have prioritized a narrow, technology-intensive idea of what counts as “active learning” — and, in the name of student wellness, steered away from teaching methods that seem confrontational or stressful. Once a form of assessment becomes rare, it’s easy for it to assume the guise of a classroom boogeyman, a form of torture preferred only by some mythical Herr Professor Doktor who wears a monocle and hurls an eraser at students’ heads if they fail to answer his questions in complete paragraphs.

A small number of instructors are bucking this trend and show how versatile — and humane — the oral exam can be. Ryan Sweeder, a professor at Michigan State University, gives students in his general chemistry class the option of an oral final exam in which they talk him through a chemical demonstration that they studied during the semester. He and his colleagues analyzed student performance and found that if they take the oral exam “students seem to get more out of it” than those who stick with the written exam, he told me. And they prepare more thoroughly for the oral exam, he added: “It feels very different, from the student perspective, to do poorly in front of someone, when you’re talking to them and interacting, than to do poorly on an anonymous piece of paper. There’s a social contract: ‘I’m a student, I should know this stuff.’”

Asking students to riff on a demonstration, rather than write a series of disconnected exam answers, helps them link segments of knowledge gained throughout the course — especially since the professor can probe when they get stuck.

“You’re like, ‘Oh, you know this other piece — why didn’t you use this as corroborating evidence?’” Dr. Sweeder said. “One thing this does is force the students to bring all those pieces together. In my case, they’re linking acidity and gas laws and kinetics in an integrated network of understanding on one topic. It has a more lasting impact, in terms of student learning.” (He also disputed the idea that oral exams are necessarily more time-consuming for professors than grading written assessments. A 20-minute exam gives him a good sense of a student’s mastery of the material; he scores it on the spot and tallies up the points later.)

Anne Crecelius has been using oral exams for years in her physiology course at the University of Dayton. She gives students a list of 32 possible questions; at the exam itself, she chooses one, and the student chooses another. “It’s the immediacy of the feedback, the ability to answer a question and have someone say, ‘Tell me more,’ or ‘Explain this further,’ or ‘Given that, what about this’ — that’s what you don’t get on a written exam,” she said. This is a key point: Oral exams allow us to test a student’s intellectual agility and ability to synthesize in a way that is impossible on a standardized written test.

Oral exams also help students practice coping with modest amounts of stress — the kind they will face in their working lives. “I would rather you be anxious and potentially break down in tears with me in my office than at your interview for grad school, or with a patient in five years,” Dr. Crecelius told me. “The consequences of anxiety leading to decreased performance in this setting is the safest it will be in a while. So let’s push you to that point, and give you feedback and strategies along the way.”

The point about anxiety is a serious one. This past spring, a British court ordered the University of Bristol to pay damages to the family of Natasha Abrahart, an undergraduate with severe anxiety who took her own life in 2018 just before an oral assessment. Universities have been scrambling for years to deal with the deepening mental health crisis on campus — adding “wellness days” to the academic calendar and hiring more administrators focused on psychological care.

Universities must have personnel who are trained to identify and aid students with disabling levels of anxiety. But for the vast majority of students, a certain level of anxiety is a healthy part of the college experience. Eric Loucks, who directs the Mindfulness Center at Brown University, explained that just beyond our “comfort zone” is “our growth zone, ‘eustress,’ good stress — it is stressful, but we’re growing as a person. Part of what college is about is to stress ourselves so we grow, like building muscles in the gym.”

The college graduates I interviewed for this article told me that they wished they’d had more oral exams in college in order to acclimate to the experience and improve. Mackenzie Wilson, who struggled with an oral exam in Dr. Crecelius’s class, went on to graduate school in physical therapy, where exams called “practicals,” which ask students to talk through a hypothetical patient’s problem, are a regular part of the curriculum. “They caused me anxiety at the beginning, but we did them so frequently at P.T. school that it became second nature,” she told me. “I wish we’d had more chances to do oral exams in college, to build those skills and see the cumulative effect.”

In other words, oral exams are more effective if they become a regular feature of academic culture, rather than a terrifying one-off ordeal. At Biola University, outside Los Angeles, the philosophy department has made oral exams an ordinary part of the student experience. All philosophy majors have to take three orals, and material from any philosophy course they’ve taken up to that point is fair game.

Majors also take seminars team-taught by all four professors in the department, where they learn that “we’re really comfortable with argument, disagreeing with one another,” Kent Dunnington, the chairman of the department, told me. “So before their first exam, many have been in a classroom with the four of us directly engaged in argument. They see we enjoy the intellectual challenge of being asked a question we don’t know how to answer.”

The opportunity for this kind of debate is a major advantage of the oral exam — and a reason, I think, that many professors avoid it and students dread it. American college students have come of age in a political culture that does not exactly model healthy disagreement. Professors around the country tell me they steer away from controversial topics for fear of running afoul of student opinion, and if they grade rigorously, they worry about incurring the wrath of overly involved parents.

“In the culture of higher ed right now, everyone’s walking on eggshells,” said Dr. Crecelius, the professor at University of Dayton. And if a student’s parents call to complain about the grade for an oral exam, she said, “I have nothing to show them. I don’t record these — in a sense, it’s a bit of risk-taking.”

Recording the exams can be useful, and not just for reducing liability. In my class on American intellectual history, I ask students to use their phones to record the oral exams we do together so that they can review it and write a self-assessment afterward. But Dr. Crecelius’s point about risk-taking is broader than getting into a tiff over a grade.

Polls tell us that it’s not just instructors who are on eggshells. Many students say that they are self-censoring in class, largely because they fear judgment by their peers. Ms. Onyeoziri, the law student who recalled her college oral exams so fondly, pointed out that an intense, one-on-one conversation with a professor can be a freer forum for discussing ideas than the classroom, where students feel pressure to impress classmates, and teachers are leery of correcting an error too forcefully in front of other students.

“I think oral exams can be a solution to that feeling of students not being able to speak their minds in class,” she said. “It’s just you and your professor. They’re pushing back. It’s a space where you can say, ‘This is how I really feel about the material.’” She added, “In the context of an oral exam, the professor can probe your ideas. That’s a huge learning opportunity.”

In my classes, it’s in the oral exams that the stakes of what we’ve studied together really come through, where we can dig into the topics a student found most inspiring or disturbing. Sian Lazar, an anthropologist whose department is one of the few at Cambridge that still uses oral exams with undergraduates, said that a central rationale for requiring students to do an oral defense of their thesis is “to show the students that someone takes their work seriously — to give them that experience.” The viva is “all about getting them to show their thinking, to show what they’ve got.”

By testing students’ intellectual agility, normalizing nerves and giving them space to be honest about bold opinions, oral exams treat undergraduates like adults: people who have interesting things to say and can handle being put on the spot. At a time when American universities tend to infantilize students — taking attendance in class, employing fleets of student affairs bureaucrats to tend to their needs — treating students like grown-ups is deeply countercultural.

The most empowering thing a teacher can do for her students has nothing to do with constant surveillance of their academic engagement, fancy classroom technology or a syllabus that caters to the latest trends. It is to simply talk with them, face-to-face, as fellow thinkers.

Molly Worthen is the author, most recently, of the audio course “Charismatic Leaders Who Remade America” and an associate professor of history at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

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